How to Plan For Purposeful Conversations In Math

Talk is not cheap.

It may be if it is not purposeful, thoughtful, useful. But it can be powerful, meaningful, and a link to making sense of things… even math.

In Regie Routman’s compelling tome, Literacy Essentials, she wades into Listening, Speaking , and Questioning as a source to “elevate teaching and learning” (149). After seeing how important it is these past few years while teaching high school math to have conversation as part of the instructional equation, I know that I am going to have to do a lot explicit modeling and teaching this next year to help 6th graders have a healthy, usable framework for how to have math discussions.

That will be a lot of work and a lot of fun! I think it will set them up to continue to grow as thinkers and problem solvers. They will have the tools to handle talking about tuned mass dampers and the world’s tallest buildings, about icosahedrons and Fuller projections, and how to solve ratio problems.

On pages 153-154, Routman pegs how to promote and have “significant conversations.”

* Students today need “demonstrations and practice on how and why meaningful conversation is an artful necessity for optimal living and learning” (153).

* This is a “most important skill” (154).

* Our role? “Simulate, clarify and moderate the conversations so students do most of the talking” (154).

* These conversations should “promote debate, curiosity… thoughtful questioning… valuing multiple perspectives” (154).

* Regie again says on 154, “…if we want students to invest in complex thinking and sharing of ideas, they must believe their voices matter.”

Making this happen requires deliberate and intentional planning. Mrs. Routman gives several tools and steps in her “Take Action” section. I want to highlight one of the tools that speaks the loudest to me on this read. She says to “ensure your students and you have the tools to make productive discussions possible” (156) and then cites Talk Moves to Support Classroom Discussion from a book by Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz. These “moves” are discussion stems for various tasks within thoughtful and purposeful discussion. For example, this stem – “so you’re saying…” – can be used for helping frame and paraphrase what another student has said.

Sure, it seems simple. But for conversations to be civil and thoughtful, these types of discussion prompts have to be rehearsed in context. That may be a little forced at first. Awkward. Maybe even a little uncomfortable. The kids will need to see me model it. They will need prompts in their hands so they can practice. They will most likely need to listen in on each other to offer feedback. It may be emotional.

If they have to disagree or correct some math missteps, it almost certainly will be. Harry O’Malley, in a recent article, suggests that I could even plan for the emotions that I want them to have. What if I introduce, as he suggests, music in the background during a practice conversation – music that was specifically chosen to evoke a more predictable emotion?

Whatever my methods, I once again come away from Mrs. Routman’s excellent book about literacy chock-full of ideas about how to apply some of those core learnings in my 6th-grade math classroom. That’s not only something worth thinking about, it’s something worth talking about.

How Can Reading Conferences Work in Math?

I don’t even know if one-on-one math conferences are a thing. I’m “new” to the math instruction field – having taught high school Algebra 2 and Geometry for this current year and only exposed to this world for the second semester of last year. I’m not new to the profession. I taught middle school language arts for several years.

But I have spent last year and this trying to blend the worlds of “literacy” and math instruction. I know a preponderance of information is out there about math instruction. I’ve got a lot of info to tackle moving forward. But last year when I took over an Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 classroom mid-year, the immediate need, one of the most pressing and apparent needs of my students was how to access information about what they were learning.

I joined Matt’s book study group last year (studying the book Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jennifer Allen) with the idea that I would be examining what kind insights and connections I could find and make about literacy, in my case then, the math textbook, in light of what I saw in my new math classrooms: Kids could not access text to help them learn math.

My conviction after another year of math instruction has not changed. Kids are still having difficulty making sense of a difficult text. Enter this year’s book study on Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman. I was and am still convinced that I need to help kids broker that deal – that reading about complex math tasks is difficult, requires explicit instruction and practice, and is essential in moving kids to be independent consumers of math ideas and applications.

Somehow, I have been convinced that my training in writing and reading instruction is part of the equation. The two worlds should talk more! My participation here with Matt and his excellent team of knowledgeable practitioners is not a conclusive study. It’s not even a study. It’s an idea, really.

Just the other day, one of my students in Geometry had a breakthrough. “I am getting this! This makes sense!” I’d helped her individually many times during our work sessions. You know, those independent practice moments after direct instruction and lots of guided practice. But that day she got it. I realized that I needed more one-on-one time with some students to give them personal guidance. Asking her questions about where meaning broke down, where she didn’t “get it” helped to pinpoint exactly how to help her. Showing her that space was crucial. Trig ratios step into the world of fractions and students have a lot of walls up when you mention fractions. She did.

Ms. Routman says it this way about struggling readers in section 5 of Excellence: “Here is the crucial point: deliberate practice without effective teaching and coaching doesn’t guarantee growth” (222). I believe she is talking about one-on-one reading conferences. Ms. Routman shares the story of Maria who had a three-year discrepancy in her reading ability and her grade. She says that after just one reading conference, Maria started improving quickly. That is what has happened with my student. She finished the practice we did that day easily and successfully and left the room with a smile that told the whole story.

She’s been like a new person since then in math. Unafraid to tackle whatever faces her, she is now convinced that she can learn it. That is the kind experience I want to bring to all of my “math-ers.”

I’ve been trying to find a way to have math conferences with more of my struggling students. It is all informal with no model or structure at this point. But similar to my realization last year that I would have to help kids learn how to read math text, I am realizing at the end of this school year that next year is going to have to have math conferences. One-on-one time to assess needs and coach kids specifically.

Nobody Fails

footer-bookI recently attended a leadership conference where I was able to hear Laszlo Bock, the former Vice President of People Operations at Google, speak. One of the many things that he shared from his book Work Rules!, was that to make work a better place, a person should have a mission that matters. That work should have meaning. Real meaning. That this would serve a building block to real happiness and fulfillment at work and in life.

What a challenging and encouraging impetus! Who wouldn’t want to make work better and life happy!

Who could have a more clear mission than teachers? I teach high school math. My mission was crystal clear this past year: help kids learn Algebra. Simple enough. But the more Mr. Bock talked, the more I thought about what happened to me as a math teacher and to what happened in my classes. It wasn’t really about math at all.

Jennifer Allen writes about it in Chapter 7 of her book, Becoming A Literacy Leader. We have to define what success with instruction and intervention is. For her school, “Success to us is defined by more than a reading level.” In fact, she looked at the graduation rate of those kids who had been in the reading intervention classrooms at her school.

One of my math classes was a group of freshmen who had failed Algebra 1 in the first semester and were repeating it with me. It was an intervention class. And I had an army to assist me. Four classroom aides were assigned to my period. The Freshman graduation coach at our school spent a lot of time in my room too. So, you would think that we were all about math support – and we were!

But that was not the mission that drove our team. Not even remotely. From the very beginning of the second semester, when all these kids had their schedules rearranged to have a repeat class, we had a clear focus in front of us as a team charged with giving these kids round 2 of Algebra 1 semester 1: Nobody fails.

We were driven. If 15 kids didn’t pass a quiz, then we strategically retaught and rearranged lessons and plans to accommodate reteaching. They got 1 on 1 support with an assistant. They got a second dose. I retaught them. I pulled them in after school, before school, during our office hours. The graduation coach tracked them down during periods where they had some wiggle room to go over concepts again. I retested them. I tested them using different assessments sometimes… trying to match their modes of expression. We contacted parents to let them know how much we cared and asking for their support and help.

But nobody was going to fail. Nobody. All of the instructional team was on board. I retold them the mission often. I told the kids the mission. When kids were bored and distracted, I would often stop things and remind them of the behaviors that landed them there and then remind them with a smile that nobody was going to fail.

Do you remember the scramble in the movie Hidden Figures to accurately calculate the re-entry of the John Glenn’s space capsule? It generated the main tension for the movie and all hands were constantly scrapping to make sure that they were sure that they were sure that re-entry figures were accurate. They had a crystal clear mission.

That was how I felt about the kids in Algebra 1 Semester 1 Round 2.

Never in the 26 years I taught was work more difficult. I spend hours at home trying to figure out better ways to make Algebra more clear, to make it stick better, to help kids that didn’t ever have success in math have success. I researched. I planned. I tried. I collaborated.

But it wasn’t my algebra planning alone that helped kids succeed. It was the mission. Our team relentlessly held on to it. It drove us.

So, this year, as I tackle Geometry and Algebra 2 with whole new bunches of kids, you can bet that the drive behind my instruction will be that no one fails. No one. I will certainly be employing everything in my power to give kids strategies for navigating the sometimes despised, often neglected, and occasionally difficult world of math. I will still spend time finding out new things about how I’m successful at figuring out solutions and how that can transfer for them. I will look at what we know about brains and how they function. I’ll scrutinize other experts experiences with concept-specific strategies that may help kids. I’ll sell the math practices that we know help kids persevere in solving math problems.

But behind it all, the heartbeat of what I will do, the driving force, will be executing a mission that matters – nobody fails.

Jennifer sums it up well: “Our goal is ultimately to remove the intervention rooms as we reduce the number of students needing additional support.” With a little planning and collaboration, I can provide that support before we get to an intervention tier that requires something more drastic.

Nobody fails.

 

Struggling Mathers

This past year was my 26th in this business. I spent 11 of those as a middle school language arts and social studies teacher. I spent 5 years as an instructional coach. I taught alternative ed and GED for 2.5 years. All of my working life I’d been concerned with the input side of literacy – reading.  This year, I am teaching high school math.

I am a complete newbie at teaching high school Algebra. And I feel like it. I spend long hours poring over content trying to understand the most sensible route to making this abstract subject comprehensible and engaging for my freshmen. They were placed with me at the beginning of the second semester this past year to repeat semester 1 because they had failed it. I am certainly no expert and lean on my new peers in the math department for help.

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This is one reason why I am thankful to be reading Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming A Literacy Leader. Specifically, she opens with her call to creating a climate where “creating ongoing opportunities for shared experiences and conversations among staff” is the way forward in navigating the myriad demands we face as teachers.

One of the most striking parts of my experience has been a fresh set of unbiased eyes on a traditional subject. All my years of literacy instruction have given me a different perspective on this whole math thing. I watch students “get it” when I sit with them one-on-one and we read a word problem out loud together. They start to make sense when I ask them a few good questions to help them reflect and verbalize what they know from the problem. As much as I leaned on my team, I believe I brought perspective to our conversations. 

It’s like “good” readers vs. struggling readers. You know. All those things we know those good readers are doing in their heads, like, predicting, connecting the text to things they know, making a movie of the action in their mind, reading for a specific purpose, scanning, skimming, re-reading… the list could go on. I am finding that struggling mathers are not doing the things that “good” mathers are doing.

That the difference between them often lies not in some innate ability, but a collection of habits that they don’t have yet and are not employing to help themselves. I find myself often modeling my thinking out loud for them. They apply few of the Standards For Mathematical Practice (which I am only just getting to now, as you can imagine).

This is only one example of how I am “seeing” and wrestling with literacy in math.

Just as Ms. Allen notes in chapter 2, as “learning to read should be a joyful experience,” so should learning to math. My attempt this summer while reading Jennifer’s book is to find parallels to help foster and lead in literacy in the math world. I know I have tons of math resources available to me – I’ve spent a lot of time reading them these past few months – but I want to specifically think about my context, my assignment, my kids and how I can help them navigate math help and instructional resources. I think Ms. Allen’s book is the perfect platform for developing the questions I want to ask in order to explore this further.